Friday, May 16, 2014

Coffee Will Make You Black

April Sinclair
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Set on Chicago's Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, Coffee Will Make You Black is the moving and entertaining tale of Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, a young black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The novel opens at a time when, for black families, seeing a black person on television was an event; when expressions like "I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac" and "Coffee will make you black" were handed down from one generation to the next without comment. Stevie is a bookworm, yet she longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin' trash, "kicking butt, " and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a 'fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront the prejudice she observes in blacks as well as whites. April Sinclair writes frankly about a young black woman's sexuality, and about the confusion Stevie faces when she realizes she's more attracted to the school nurse - who is white - than her teenage boyfriend. As readers follow Stevie's at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be black before black was beautiful.

My Review

I couldn’t resist the title. When I was little, my mom used to give me my own mug with a little bit of CafĂ© Bustelo and a lot of sugar. It made me feel pretty grown up that I was drinking coffee with my parents. My grandmother would look at me disapprovingly and say, “coffee will make you black.” Well, obviously it wasn’t working, so I would hand my empty mug back to my mom and ask for a refill. Then she would tell me that too much coffee is no good for you. But if it makes me black, how can that be a bad thing?

I was tired of being white. Most of the white kids in my neighborhood were Jewish and came from far wealthier families than my own. The Puerto Rican kids all spoke Spanish and were various shades of brown. Though my dad was born in Puerto Rico, he had a very pale complexion. My mom, on the other hand, has that rich brown shade I so desired. Looking more like my dad than my mom made it difficult for me to fit in. My closest friend was Jewish, but I enjoyed hanging out with the black girls. They were the best at Double Dutch jump rope and tried to teach klutzy me, but all I ever got to be was a turner. My friend Penny sometimes asked me to braid her hair. Oh, what fun! It was so unexpectedly fine and easy to style. Some days, she would wear it loose with a plastic headband. Other days she would come to school in cornrows with colorful beads on the ends. Penny stuck up for me when a couple of girls harassed me on the school bus. I loved her colorful clothes and no-nonsense attitude. Whenever I was with her, no one would mess with me. One day I wanted to bring her home. My mom said it was OK, since my dad was working and wouldn’t be home until evening. While Penny was visiting, my dad shows up unexpectedly and spouts racial invective, causing poor Penny to run out of the apartment in tears. That was the end of our friendship. She eventually moved out of the neighborhood and so did I.

After Penny, I developed a crush on Joanne Chesimard when I saw her on TV passionately speaking about revolution. She was beautiful, eloquent, and wanted to change the world. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up and refused to believe she had anything to do with bank robberies and killing police officers.

Life is a series of disappointments, but black is beautiful.

All big cities have similarities. Even though Jean Stevenson “Stevie” grew up in Chicago, many of her experiences triggered sweet and painful childhood memories of growing up in the Bronx. This is not only a story about the problems of growing up and gaining independence. There is a lot here about family relationships, friendships, race relations, the feminist movement, standards of beauty, discovering one’s sexuality, and the turmoil of life in the 1960’s.

Stevie sometimes hangs out with the wrong crowd. She defies her mother’s attempts to make her “white” by resisting hair straighteners and skin lighteners. Stevie just wants to be herself and embraces her life with passion.

This was a funny, moving and heartwarming story about growing up. I’m looking forward to Stevie’s college years in the sequel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice.

Also posted at Goodreads

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